If you have a child who has been diagnosed with diabetes,
you're not alone. Every year in the United States, 13,000
children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and more than 1
million American kids and adults deal with the disease every
Diabetes is a chronic condition that needs close attention, but
with some practical knowledge, you can become your child's most
important ally in learning to live with the disease.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses
, the main type of sugar in the blood. Glucose comes from the foods
we eat and is the major source of energy needed to fuel the
After you eat a meal, your body breaks down the foods you eat
into glucose and other nutrients, which are then absorbed into the
bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. The
in the blood rises after a meal and triggers the
to make the hormone
and release it into the bloodstream. But in people with diabetes,
the body either can't make or can't respond to insulin
Insulin works like a key that opens the doors to cells and
allows the glucose in. Without insulin, glucose can't get into
the cells (the doors are "locked" and there is no key)
and so it stays in the bloodstream. As a result, the level of sugar
in the blood remains higher than normal. High blood sugar levels
are a problem because they can cause a number of health
What Is Type 1 Diabetes?
There are two major types of diabetes:
. Both type 1 and
type 2 diabetes
cause blood sugar levels to become higher than normal. However,
they cause it in different ways.
Type 1 diabetes (formerly called
) results when the pancreas loses its ability to make the hormone
insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the person's own
attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce
insulin. Once those cells are destroyed, they won't ever make
Although no one knows for certain why this happens, scientists
think it has something to do with genes. But just getting the genes
for diabetes isn't usually enough. A person probably would then
have to be exposed to something else - like a virus - to get type 1
Type 1 diabetes can't be prevented, and there is no
practical way to predict who will get it. There is nothing that
either a parent or the child did to cause the disease. Once a
person has type 1 diabetes, it does not go away and requires
lifelong treatment. Children and teens with type 1 diabetes depend
to control their blood glucose levels.
Type 2 diabetes (formerly called
) is different from type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes results from
the body's inability to respond to insulin normally. Unlike
people with type 1 diabetes, most people with type 2 diabetes can
still produce insulin, but not enough to meet their body's
Signs and Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes
A person can have diabetes without knowing it because the
symptoms aren't always obvious and they can take a long time to
develop. Type 1 diabetes may come on gradually or suddenly.
Parents of a child with typical symptoms of type 1 diabetes may
notice that their child:
The kidneys respond to high levels of glucose in the bloodstream
by flushing out the extra glucose in urine. A child with diabetes
needs to urinate more frequently and in larger volumes.
is abnormally thirsty.
Because the child is losing so much fluid from peeing so much, he
or she becomes very thirsty to help avoid becoming dehydrated. A
child who has developed diabetes drinks a lot in an attempt to
keep the level of body water normal.
(or fails to gain weight as he or she grows) in spite of a good
appetite. Kids and teens who develop type 1 diabetes may have an
increased appetite, but often lose weight. This is because the
body breaks down muscle and stored fat in an attempt to provide
fuel to the hungry cells.
often feels tired
because the body can't use glucose for energy properly.
But in some cases, other symptoms may be the signal that
something is wrong. Sometimes the first sign of diabetes is
in a child who has been dry at night. The possibility of diabetes
should also be suspected if a vaginal yeast infection (also called
infection) occurs in a girl who hasn't started puberty yet.
If these early symptoms of diabetes aren't recognized and
treatment isn't started, chemicals called ketones can build up
in the child's blood and cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting,
fruity-smelling breath, breathing problems, and even loss of
consciousness. Sometimes these symptoms are mistaken for the flu or
appendicitis. Doctors call this serious condition
, or DKA.
In addition to short-term problems like those listed above,
diabetes can also cause long-term complications in some people,
including heart disease, stroke, vision impairment, and kidney
damage. Diabetes can also cause other problems throughout the body
in the blood vessels, nerves, and gums. These problems don't
usually show up in kids or teens with type 1 diabetes who have had
the disease for only a few years. However, these health problems
can occur in adulthood in some people with diabetes, particularly
if they haven't managed or controlled their diabetes
There's good news, though - proper treatment can stop or
control these diabetes symptoms and reduce the risk of long-term
problems. Doctors can say for sure if a person has diabetes by
testing blood samples for glucose. If you think your child has
symptoms of diabetes, talk to your child's doctor. If the
diagnosis of diabetes is suspected or confirmed, the doctor may
refer your child to a
, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of
children with diseases of the endocrine system, such as diabetes
and growth disorders.
Living With Type 1 Diabetes
Children and teens with diabetes need to monitor and control
their glucose levels. They need to:
- check blood sugar levels a few times a day by testing a small
- give themselves insulin injections, have an adult give them
injections, or use an insulin pump
- eat a balanced, healthy diet and pay special attention to the
amounts of sugars and starches in the food they eat and the
timing of their meals
- get regular
to help control blood sugar levels and help avoid some of the
long-term health problems that diabetes can cause, like heart
- work closely with their doctor and diabetes health care team
to help achieve the best possible control of their diabetes and
be monitored for signs of diabetes complications and other health
problems that occur more frequently in children with type 1
Living with diabetes is a challenge, no matter what a
child's age, but young children and teens often have special
issues to deal with. Young children may not understand why the
blood samples and insulin injections are necessary. They may be
scared, angry, and uncooperative.
Teens may feel different from their peers and may want to live a
more spontaneous lifestyle than their diabetes allows. Even when
they faithfully follow their treatment schedule, teens with
diabetes may feel frustrated when the natural adolescent body
may make their diabetes somewhat harder to control.
Having a child with diabetes may seem overwhelming at times, but
you're not alone. Your child's diabetes care team is not
only a great resource for dealing with blood sugar control and
medical issues, but also for supporting and helping you and your
child cope and live with diabetes.
What's New in the Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes?
Doctors and researchers are developing new equipment and
treatments to help children cope with the special problems of
growing up with diabetes.
Some kids and teens are already using devices that make blood
glucose testing and insulin injections easier, less painful, and
more effective. One of these devices is the insulin pump, a
mechanical device which can be used to deliver insulin more like
the pancreas does. There's also been progress toward the
development of a wearable or implantable "artificial
pancreas." This device consists of an insulin pump linked to a
device that measures the person's blood glucose level
Doctors and scientists are also investigating a potential cure
for diabetes. This involves transplanting insulin-producing cells
into the body of a person with diabetes. Researchers are also
testing ways to stop diabetes before it starts. For example,
scientists are studying whether diabetes can be prevented in those
who may have inherited an increased risk for the disease.
Until scientists have perfected ways to better treat and
possibly even prevent or cure diabetes, parents can help their
children lead happier, healthier lives by giving constant
encouragement, arming themselves with diabetes information, and
making sure their children eat properly, exercise, and stay on top
of blood sugar control every day. Doing so will enable kids to do
all the things that other children do while helping them grow up to
be healthy, well-adjusted, productive adults.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Nancy Gugerty, RD, RN, CDE
Date reviewed: October 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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